Babus, Social Life and Murder: The Famous Trends of Kalighat Paintings

Paintings are a unique way of expressing feelings and artists channel theirs through an army of colors, shapes, and ideas. This is exactly what describes the evolution of Kalighat paintings the best. One of the most traditional forms of Indian art, Kalighat painting has always been an ode to Hindu deities. Kalighat art was a pleasant reminder for each devotee as they were sold as souvenir paintings for temple visitors, but with the advent of colonialism, this art form shifted its nature from being based on classical religious art to being influenced by the socio-political atmosphere.

A barrage of contemporary art was produced in this time period where artists started painting scenes of daily lives - a lot of which included European elements. What also grew with this trend was a strong hatred towards the Bengali Babus.

Today, we tell you some interesting and famous trends that rose within British Bengaland changed the face of Kalighat artwork forever. But before we dive into the world of Kalighat painting trends, let us tell you a little about Kalighat art painting and what makes them such a special and unique art!


  • What are Kalighat paintings?

Kalighat painting started culminating as an art form near the Kalighat Kali Temple in Bengal. These painters, formerly pattachitra artists, set up a base near the temple to create revenue out of selling single Kalighat pat art which came to be known as Kalighat art painting. These artists were famously known as Kalighat patuas as well. The Kalighat artwork stood out for its use of bold and simple colors, confident brushstrokes by the artists, and a plain background that was essentially left untouched.

These varied characteristics made the paintings stand out and naturally put attention to the subject of the painting. Traditionally, they revolved around religious and mythological themes but with the shift from rural villages to urban settings, patuas found it hard to cope with the European way of life that was unfolding in front of their eyes. Hence, started Kalighat art trends that produced paintings reflecting their perceived image of the emerging colonialism in Bengal.


  • Portraying the ‘babu’ culture in Kalighat painting trends

One would be amused to find scenes of daily lives depicted in Kalighat art painting – these were sarcastic, humorous, and almost reflecting the meanness and lavish lifestyle of a typical aristocratic Bengali. The upper-class Bengalis who appeased the Britishers to lead a fancy life were refuted by the artists, they were often painted with courtesans, with a hookah in their hand, drinking or having paan.

Kalighat artists had an estranged relationship with the British and the elite Bengalis, almost disdaining their lifestyle which was rightly reflected in their paintings – shown as religiously hypocritical people. For them, it was a breakdown of their traditional values and a move to a more modern way of life, which the rural artists did not cherish. This was a way for the Kalighat artists to showcase the ordinary people the wrongdoings of the babus. Hence, the iconic Kalighat art trends began in Bengal where the babu culture was despised.


  • The shift from religious art to contemporary art

  Kalighat artwork, also known as kalam patua paintings, was reinvented by Kalighat artists who started making paintings that focused on the civil life of colonial Calcutta. These paintings were a part of the Occidental school of Kalighat art, while the painting with religious and mythological themes was under the Oriental school of Kalighat painting. The Occidental school had artists that produced paintings depicting social and political situations brewing in the 19th century- scenes of crimes, women or men feeding their pet cats, birds, and animals, men traveling by elephants, barbers cleaning the ear of courtesans, men enjoying hookahs with an attendant next to them and many more.

Not only were they producing high-quality paintings, but they were also propagating the idea of independence through their traditional paintings of Rani Lakshmibai and Tipu Sultan. This urban lifestyle was under constant scrutiny by the artists but it intrigued them equally. On the other hand, the Oriental School of Kalighat painting was producing the traditional paintings depicting Hindu Gods like Maa Durga, Radha, and Krishna, Yashoda with Radha and Krishna, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Goddess Sarawasti, etc.

Apart from this, mythological characters were a favorite too like Dushyanta and Shakuntala, Pravira and Jana, etc.  Often the artists painted Islamic figures like Imam Husain’s horse as well to entertain their Muslim clients.


  • The iconic paintings of the ‘Tarakeswar case’

Every style of Indian painting has its own way of manifesting or spreading a message, there’s always spiritual or religious meaning behind it. What makes a Kalighat painting stand out is their interest in subjects of society. One such incident which has been recreated in Kalighat art trends innumerable times is the famous Tarakeswar case which is amongst the most famous Kalighat art. The Tarakeswar affair case was one of the biggest scandals to take place in 1873 wherein Elokeshi, a sixteen-year-old, was murdered by her own husband, a government employee, Nabinchandra Chaterji. Elokeshi and Nabin resided in the village of Tarakeswar along with her parents.

It was believed that Elokeshi had reached out to the powerful Mahant, Madhavchandra Giri, the chief priest of the Shiva temple in Tarakeshwar, to seek medicine for fertility issues. The mahant allegedly tried to seduce her and later raped her. Aware of the incidents that had unfolded, Elokeshi’s parents let it slip and soon an affair began.  Nabin came across rumors of his wife having an affair with the priest. Enraged, Nabin slit his wife’s throat and decapacitated her head with a fish knife. This particular event has been recreated in several plays, paintings, and art forms and is engraved within the Bengali culture.


  • The decline of Kalighat Art

With the advent of the 20th century, Kalighat painting as a form of Indian Art started losing its importance as cheaper imitations in the form of oleographs were made available from Bombay and Germany. These were machine-made paintings, glazed and colored lithograph copies of the original works.

Today, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds the largest number of Kalighat art painting, which have turned into priced possessions and collections. These include the works of the famous Kalighat artist Jamini Roy; his other works adorn the walls of the Harn Museum of Art at the University of California and the National Gallery of Art in Delhi.

Today, Kalighat artwork continues to be practiced by patuas in rural Bengal. This prestigious Bengali art has now been lost in a sea of modern, contemporary art forms and techniques but the original works continue to capture one’s eye.

September 11, 2021 — Rahul Soni